He was fortunate the Orcs had not been very thorough.
Thrain leaned his head back against the cold, stone wall and catalogued his losses. His companions, no doubt frantically searching this cursed forest for him even now. His weapons, even down to the slim dagger he kept hidden in his left boot. He had gotten a few sturdy kicks in, with his metal-shod boots, when they first laid hands on him. The Orcs hadn't liked that so they had taken his boots as well.
Thrain was puzzled as to why he had been taken, targeted alone among his companions. It chilled him to think of reasons why they hadn't killed him yet. They had found the ring immediately. Almost as if they knew to look for it. A shiver ran up his spine at the thought.
The stones were cold under his bare feet. He was clad in only his tunic and trousers; his mail, his helm and his overtunic had been taken as well. His hand reached for the waistband of his trousers, to the hidden pocket there. He could feel the solid outline of the metal key. At least that and the map were safe. For now.
They had kept him alive for some reason. They had taken the ring. He had heard some muttering from the Orcs—references to a Master expected to arrive at the stronghold. Thrain had a suspicion he was being kept alive for an audience with him, whoever he might be.
They may have taken everything else but he would not let them take this. The map and key were part of his family legacy. By all rights they should go to Thorin but there was little chance of that ever happening now. Thrain thought back with regret on his last meeting with his son and heir; he should have left the heirlooms of his house with him. All of them.
He looked around the stone cell, experienced eyes searching for any imperfection, any break in the smooth, even stonework. It was Elven work; it didn't take an experienced stonemason to determine that. But it was old. Older than any habitation he had visited. He was likely in the old fortress of the Elven King—long abandoned by him and overrun with Orcs.
His eyes roamed to the stones beneath his feet. There was moisture here—water likely dripping down from the lightwell far above him. He moved to the corner of the cell, the part that let the light in.
Looking up, Thrain could see the opening—far too high for him to reach, even if the moss-covered walls gave him any chance at a foothold. He would not escape that way.
This could not have always been a prison cell. There was too much light, too much space. This was a citadel once for a proud king—sturdy stone and thick walls—but it was where people lived and slept and worked, in more peaceful times.
Thrain had heard the rumors. A dark presence had taken over the southern reaches of this forest long ago. The Elves had moved north, over the mountains and across the Forest River, abandoning this place.
Who or what this rumored Necromancer was, Thrain did not know. He suspected he was the mysterious Master the Orcs had referenced during his capture. The loss of the ring weighed on him. What power would know to look for that? One far older than this citadel, came the answer in his thoughts.
Thrain shook himself. No. He had to stop thinking about it. He would likely make this Necromancer's acquaintance soon enough. He had to focus now, focus on finding a secure hiding place for the map and key. It would not do to let the Necromancer have those too. Not the treasure, not the mountain and certainly not access to the dragon.
He had been slowly making his way around the cell, fingers testing the edges of stones set in the floor. It wasn't until Thrain reached the right-hand corner of the cell that he felt a stone shift very slightly under his touch. This was the corner with the most moisture, walls thick with moss. His fingers worked at the edge of the stone, moving back and forth. He closed his eyes to better concentrate.
It had been long since any had reached out to this stone. He could feel its age, could sense the long-lost echoes of other hands shaping this rock. But the deep harmony of a well-made construct was overlaid with a foul taint of darkness. It washed over him like a wave of ice-cold water, severing his tenuous sense of the stone itself.
Thrain sat up and took a few deep breaths. His eyes traveled to glimpse the impossible blue of the sky far above, a faint whisper of wind in tree leaves traveling down to him. The darkness sullied the song of the stone but there was still power in these foundations, laid down so very long ago—when Elven magic was not a mere myth but reality.
He put his chilled fingers back on the moss-slick stone, following the faint song below the dissonance on the surface. Eyes closed, Thrain rocked his hands on the stone fragment, gently coaxing it to move.
Sweat rolled down his face, trailing into the thicket of his beard, but he paid it no mind. His hands did the work, connecting him to the rock he touched. Again and again he repeated the motion, patient and steady.
The floor paver under his hand shifted. He opened his eyes, immediately noting the dimmer light around him. It would soon be too dark to see and he did not know what the night would bring. He needed to work faster. Thrain's movements became stronger, the gentle touch replaced by a firmer grip, a more frantic speed.
There was a faint glow of moonlight by the time he had loosened it enough to lift. The dirt below it was firm; hard-packed and solid from the ages since it had last been uncovered. He could not lay the map and key on it—the stone placed over them would jut out against the evenness around it, glaringly obvious to any eye that beheld it.
His nails were soon ragged and torn but he had not made much of a space. He could hide the map but the key would still be too bulky.
He ripped open the discreet seam in his waistband and opened the hidden pocket, sliding out the map and key. Thrain clutched them to his chest for just a moment, a memory of fear, fire and aching loss shuddering through him.
He dropped the map and key into the shallow space and gently placed the stone on top of them. It wobbled. The key was too thick.
He cursed as he lifted the stone again. His hand had rubbed most of the moss off it. It would draw the eye more easily for that reason now as well.
Desperate now, knowing morning would likely bring his jailers, Thrain took the sturdy key and pounded the solid earth with it. Again and again, until finally the dirt cracked and split. It was easier then. He drove the key into a crack, twisting it as he would in a lock, dislodging chunks of age-old, hard-packed earth.
He crushed the chunks in his hands as he scooped them out, piling the dusty powder and fragments on the far end of the space he was creating. Thrain pressed the map to his chest one last time then gently laid it in the hollow. He gripped the key in both hands and whispered a few words of protection before laying it reverently on the map. He swept a layer of the fine dust over it and then carefully placed the stone back in place.
It slid into position, lined up evenly with the stones that surrounded it again. But it still moved more than he would have liked. What to do? Like the Dwarves, the Elves used no mortar, their stones fitting together based on shape and precise fit. He had been lucky that centuries of moisture on this stone had eroded one edge away.
Thrain took the remnants of the clumps of hard dirt he had lifted out of the space and crushed them in his hands, deliberately following the outline of this stone. His fingers pressed the earth along the edges, compacting it. But it was too dry, to powder-like now.
He gathered moisture in his mouth, spitting into his hands and mixing it with the remnants of the dust, creating a mortar of his own making. He tamped it around the stone, smoothing it over and over until it gave only the faintest shift when pressed.
He let out an exhalation and slumped against the wall. His hands were filthy, his body rank from the sweat of his exertions. It was cold now, in the middle of the night. He scooted to sit in the corner of his cell, his bottom positioned on the stone he had shifted, his back against the slick stone wall.
He rubbed his back against the wall and shifted his hips. He would have moss stains on his clothes but that was the least of his worries. It would only support the premise that his choice of location to rest had resulted in the moss being rubbed off that particular area of the cell. And keep attention off the one stone that mattered.
Thrain tilted his head back and looked up the lightwell. The moon was waning but he could see just a glimmer of it at the edge of the well. The bright star far above was what he could see best from his vantage point.
Beloved star of the Elves, he knew. Not as revered by his own people, but it gave him some comfort now, serenely shining above him—untouchable, pristine, like a jewel set in the sky—beauty unsullied by the darkness he could feel surrounding him.
He backed his way into his familiar corner as soon as he heard the subtle sounds of movement at the far end of the corridor. His back hit the damp wall and he folded his arms over his bent knees, matted grey beard covering his bare legs.
He wondered again why this corner drew him—it was by far the dampest spot in his cell, the coldest corner, but for some reason he always found himself there, especially when his jailers came. When He came.
But He had stopped coming, had he not? With all his questions, his piercing fiery eyes, his unctuous voice that ferreted out every secret.
He had no more secrets to tell. Time passed in this place but he could not remember a time before. Fragments, visions, echoes would come at times, mostly in his dreams. An eager young face with startling blue eyes. A powerful warrior, bearded and with a crown-like helm. The glare of a forge fire. The searing heat of dragon flame.
He lifted his eyes as the sounds grew nearer, his brow creased. Those were soft sounds, not like the heavy footsteps of the Orcs. He held his breath—the other was usually silent, shrouded in stillness when He approached, but the foul darkness always came before him. He did not sense that now.
A shadow fell across the bars of his cell door. He shrank back, burrowing closer to the stone behind him. A faint light filtered towards him and he dared to peek through his unruly hair. A grey-clad shape was visible in the light emanating from the tip of the staff he was holding.
It seemed a solid bulk of a figure, not like the wraithlike forms that came to torture him. It was not as tall as his flame-eyed interrogator, who flayed his mind open with a glance.
He tilted his chin up to get a better look, hoping the shadowy corner kept him well camouflaged. He could see a pointed grey hat, a grey beard, shapeless grey robes, and the dimly glowing staff. He could make out no more.
Suddenly the staff flared brightly, illuminating the cell and he caught a glimpse of bright blue eyes meeting his own.
He tucked his head down but somehow, he did not feel fear—there had been warmth and compassion in that brief gaze. The light dimmed slightly.
"Who are you, friend?" The voice drifted over to him from the cell door. "I am a traveler, lost in these woods."
He did not know why he found himself responding but he could not help but whisper back. "You will find no shelter here. Go, before they find you."
"They?" the voice questioned. "I have seen none but you."
He looked up then, startled. "Then they have set a trap for you. Seek shelter elsewhere. You will not leave this place, if they find you."
"If who finds me?"
"The Orcs." He found himself creeping forward. "The Necromancer," he breathed. "Do not let him find you."
"Who are you?" the grey clad figure asked again, pressing his face close to the bars.
"I am no one. Once I had a name, a story. I am of no consequence now," he answered. "I am just a shadow left to rot here."
The bars of the cell door rattled and he scurried back into his corner, pleading. "Do not do that! They will hear."
"I cannot undo the lock," the stranger said, a note of regret in his voice. "It seems I must heed your words and leave as stealthily as I came." The light grew briefly brighter again. "But can I do nothing for you, my friend? Carry no message, bring no word to your family?"
Family. Did he still have a family? Had he faded from their memories as they had faded from his own? A vision of bright blue eyes and shining dark hair came to him again. He closed his eyes and concentrated.
Three laughing children—two boys wrestling and a girl-child on his shoulders, his hands holding her steady. No more than that. No names, no places.
He shook his head. "My memories are as mist, faded and thin." But as he spoke the words the vision of the Mountain of his dreams came to him again. A picture of that same Mountain drawn on a parchment map. A heavy metal key slipping out of a hidden pocket.
The stone! Frantically he shifted position, scrabbling at the floorwork, a desperate need to complete the action before this thought fled too. He cursed as the smooth stone defied his gnarled fingers.
"Have you a blade?" he hissed at the grey-cloaked form.
"I would not have you hurt yourself," came the answer.
"I must pry up the stone. You asked if I have a message. I do not but I have two objects that must leave this place before I die."
He heard some shifting at the cell door and then the sound of metal hitting stone. He looked up to see a small dagger sliding towards him across the floor. He snatched it up, digging into the edges of the stone, levering the far end again and again.
He had just slipped his fingers under the edge when the blade finally snapped but he kept his grip on the stone and heaved it up.
The metal key glinted dully. He lifted it out and then gently brushed the dirt off the map before reverently lifting it out of the hollow. He clutched the key and map to him, a familiar ache coming over him as he did.
He crawled to the doorway. "Take these," he said, sliding the map and key through the metal bars. He saw the look of surprise, quickly masked, in the old man's eyes. He had kind eyes, he thought to himself.
"Who are you?" the stranger asked again.
"I cannot say," he answered truthfully. "I would if I could. The name is lost in the fog that clouds my mind." He thrust the map and key further out. "Take them. Take them out of here." He paused and knit his brow in thought. "To my son," he said slowly. "He will know what to do with them."
"Who is your son?" the grey-cloaked figure questioned. "Where will I find him?"
"Far away. You will know him when you meet him."
The stranger shifted for a moment, the map and key disappearing under his robes and then the bright blue eyes fixed on him again. "I will keep this secret. I will keep this safe," he said. "I will try to find your son."
He let out an exhalation at the stranger's words, a calmness coming over him. "I thank you for that."
"Can I not do anything more for you? Food, a weapon, anything?" the old man leaned nearer as he spoke.
He shook his head. "No, that it is all I had left to do. My days will end here. I have known that for a long time." He backed away from the cell door and bowed his head.
"May the blessings of the Valar protect you," the stranger said. "And may you find your peace in the Halls of Mahal, across the sea."
He jerked his head up at the words but the light was already dimming and the voice was fading away.
He made his way back to the disrupted stone, sweeping the broken blade and hilt into the hollow there. He placed the stone carefully over it. It wobbled a little but that really did not matter anymore, did it?
He had nothing to hide. Not now.
"A map of Erebor," Thranduil said, one finger reaching out to brush the parchment. "Where on earth did you find this, Mithrandir?"
"It came to me, the way odd things do," the Wizard replied.
"Cryptic as always," Thranduil said, gazing down at the map. "It is years since the coming of the Dragon. The Dwarves of Erebor are scattered now. You will have your work cut out for you, searching for the owner of this. The Dwarven folk do not confide in strangers."
"You would be surprised," Gandalf replied. The Wizard's fingers brushed over the key, deep in his pocket. Still secret. Still safe.
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